The Surprising Health Benefits of Making a Campfire


Anthropologists believe that when our ancestors started cooking food, we unlocked more calories, leading to bigger brains. And from there, the internet. The logic goes that gathering together to make meals led to speaking and planning, which in turn helped us create new tools and build the social pacts that evolved into the modern world.

For most people, fire isn’t nearly as important any more. However, its legacy endures. Building and enjoying a fire has hidden benefits—especially for men, and especially during the trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those groups more successful at keeping the fire going would have had an advantage over groups that didn’t,” explains Christopher D. Lynn, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama. “A strong case can be made that this created a selective evolutionary pressure for people who can chill out by a fire, which puts them in the mood and position to learn from storytelling and to act cooperatively, rather than independently.”

To test this theory, Lynn sat 226 adults down in front of a video of a fire, some silent and some with crackling sounds. The ones who saw and heard the flames experienced a 5 percent drop in blood pressure. The longer the test subjects sat in front of the fire, the more relaxed they got, says Lynn.

In other words, sitting around a fire is calming. It’s a valuable skill any time, but even more so with a global health crisis turning up the collective temperature on stress and anxiety.

Fire’s benefits go even further, right to the gathering of the wood. Chopping trees boosts testosterone levels more than competing at sports, according to a study of Tsimane forager-farmers in the Bolivian Amazon by Ben Trumble, a behavior and economic researcher now at Arizona State University. The results shifted science’s understanding of the manliest of hormones.

“By focusing so much on the role of testosterone in aggression and competition, we have missed out on the importance of testosterone in a variety of other tasks,” Trumble told ABC. “In humans, men tend to compete for the attention of women via economic productivity as opposed to fighting other men in the street, so examining changes in testosterone during food production is important.”

In a study published in Evolution and Human Behavior, he compared saliva samples of Tsimane men before and after a game of soccer and before and after cutting down trees to clear land for farming and firewood. Testosterone levels increased after both activities, but more so after swinging an axe: a 30 percent increase in testosterone after soccer, compared to 48 percent for chopping.

“Larger spikes in testosterone enhance muscle performance, and increase men’s ability to chop trees, resulting in more food production,” Trumble says.

Trumble just wrote a prescription for the 10 million Americans suffering from low testosterone. Building a blaze has never felt more enticing. Here’s how to do it like a pro.

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